Review: ‘Venus in Fur’ at 4615 Theatre Company

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One of the most remarkable things about D.C. theater is its abundance of good plays, professionally produced and performed, yet often staged in places that are, to put it mildly, a bit odd.

Anna DiGiovanni as Vanda and Scott Ward Abernethy as Thomas in Venus in Fur, now playing at 4615 Theatre Company. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.
Anna DiGiovanni as Vanda and Scott Ward Abernethy as Thomas in Venus in Fur, now playing at 4615 Theatre Company. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Nowhere is this confluence of opposites more sharply defined than at 4615 Theatre Company, where Venus in Fur—David Ives’ wickedly funny take on sex and power—is now on view in a rehearsal space on the second floor of an office building in downtown Silver Spring.

Of course, it helps that the Tony-Award-winning play, which opened on Broadway in 2011, takes place inside a rehearsal space. The one at 4615 looks like a back office inside a boiler-room. (There is a pipe, patched up with duct tape, in the middle of the room, next to what appears to be the casting couch.)

Venus in Fur is actually a play within a play. On the surface, it’s about an arrogant director who’s having trouble finding a female lead for a play he’s adapted from a 19th-century novel.

The novel in question is the work of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch—the author for whom the word masochism was named—and set in 1870, in a resort in the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Venus opens with a clap of thunder as Vanda—a would-be actress with a ghastly Queens accent (her name, she explains, was originally Wanda, but her parents couldn’t pronounce it)—bursts into the room and demands an audition. Thomas, the director, says “no.”

But this actress doesn’t take “no” for an answer. She’s ready. And she’s dressed for the part. Under a bright red polka-dot raincoat, she’s wearing leather and lace. A real dog collar circles her neck.

When Thomas protests—this is not the look he wants, he shouts—she extracts a frilly white gown from a bag in the corner. Struggling into it over the leather and lace, she is immediately transformed.

Vanda, as played by Anna DiGiovanni, is a lot like the hurricane that blows her in. She is breathtaking, volatile, maddening and manipulative. Her ability to shift between roles—using voice and demeanor as though they were props—is uncanny.

Thomas, the imperious director who thinks he is in charge, and who chooses to assume the role of the pain-loving count, is played by Scott Ward Abernethy. He, too, begins to shift, though in his case, the change is unwitting and thus more subtle.

As they shift and turn emotionally, the two actors circle each other in a primitive, and ultimately passionate, dance.

In fact, it is a dance. Jordan Friend, Artistic Director of 4615 Theatre, refers to Venus in Fur is a “verbal tango.” He hired Emily Sucher as an “intimacy coordinator”—someone who literally choreographs desire—precisely in order to highlight the link between words and movement.

Although both actors are relatively new to the D.C. stage, their credits are impressive.  Abernethy was last seen in Caucasian Chalk Circle at Constellation and in Normal Heart at Keegan. DiGiovanni, who is a recent graduate of the Shakespeare Theatre’s Academy for Classical Acting, has been in Salisbury King John at 4615 and She Stoops to Conquer at Chesapeake Shakespeare.

Noelle Cremer’s costumes are astonishing. They range from Vanda’s S&M outfits to frock coats and furs, all pulled, like rabbits out of a hat, from an Ikea bag.

The show is artfully directed by Stevie Zimmerman, a Londoner and Oxford grad who’s lived in the US for the last 25 years. This is her third production at 4615. Working with her is Abi Rowe, who is both stage manager and production manager for the company.

Scott Ward Abernethy as Thomas and Anna DiGiovanni as Vanda in Venus in Fur, now playing at 4615 Theatre Company. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.
Scott Ward Abernethy as Thomas and Anna DiGiovanni as Vanda in Venus in Fur, now playing at 4615 Theatre Company. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Katie McCreary is the lighting designer who creates the illusion of mystery and mythology in an otherwise drab rehearsal room.

Friend, an occasional composer, doubles as sound designer. He began the company by staging plays in the backyard and basement of the house in which he grew up. (Yes, it’s number 4615.) He chose Silver Spring for the theater’s first commercial home because of its diversity and lively theater scene.

This is the group’s second full season as a professional theater. “Our theme, this year, is Gods on Earth,” he explained. “We’re exploring hubris or overweening ambition.”

In other words, they’re looking at the ways in which mortals liken themselves to gods.

“If that sounds like cognitive dissonance at work, that’s because it is,” he said, adding that the great advantage of a small theater is that it’s allowed to take risks.

“There’s less to make, and less to lose,” he pointed out, stressing that the theater’s size and location make it possible to provide great theater at an affordable price.

Venus in Fur is a brilliant play. And 4615 is a remarkable way to experience it.

Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.

Venus in Fur plays through November 17, 2018, at 4615 Theatre Company, performing at The Highwood Theatre – 914 Silver Spring Avenue, Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 928-2738, or purchase them online.

Note: For more on 4615 Theatre Company, read Sophia Howes’ review of Macbeth and Nicole Hertvik’s interview with Artistic Director Jordan Friend.

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